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Democracy on parade

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The way Imad Hamad sees it, the Constitution was the real winner in a decision handed down last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. Reversing a lower court decision, a three-judge panel ruled that a Dearborn ordinance requiring protesters to obtain a permit at least 30 days before staging a march violated free speech protections.

“I see this as a victory on behalf of the First Amendment,” says Hamad, director of the Michigan branch of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

The Michigan American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of the ADC and Dearborn resident Imad Chammout in January 2003 after Chammout and others were prosecuted for participating in a march without first obtaining a permit. The ordinance violation carried a potential penalty of 90 days behind bars and a $500 fine. The march was held to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians.

Such protests, Hamad says, “are the ultimate form of expressing true American democracy.”

That’s certainly way the court viewed the case in making its unanimous decision.

“Our analysis is guided by the fact that parades and processions are a unique and cherished from of political expression, serving as a symbol of our democratic tradition,” Circuit Court Judge Donald P. Lay wrote in issuing the ruling.

Noting that there is “scarcely a more powerful form of expression than a political march,” Lay pointed out that such a demonstration is intended to provoke “spontaneous action, and this is where its virtue lies. As it progresses, it may stir the sentiments and sympathies of those it passes, causing fellow citizens to join the procession as a statement of solidarity.”

And such a statement loses its oomph (to use a decidedly nonjudicial term) if demonstrators reacting to, say, the launching of an illegal war, are forced to wait 30 days before making their sentiments known.

“The court issued a wonderful decision vindicating the right of people in this country to participate in protest marches at a time when they can most affect public policy,” observes Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU.

And, as Hamad notes, you cannot put freedom of expression on hold just because a city ordinance mandates a 30-day waiting period.

News Hits called the city of Dearborn to find out if officials there plan to appeal the ruling by asking the Supreme Court to consider the case, but we couldn’t get a response. As a courtesy, we will give them 30 days to let us know what they plan to do, but caution them that, as far as our readers are concerned, waiting that long will certainly reduce the significance of any reply they might formulate.

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